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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Solving public problems with collective intelligence

Around the globe there is increasing recognition that the traditional ways of solving public problems are insufficient for the challenges of the 21st century.

Political leaders, policymakers and service providers at all levels of government confront issues where sustainable solutions seem elusive.

Problem-solving through the use of collective intelligence, however, is offering a way forward. By turning to crowdsourcing, co-design, citizen science and other techniques for mobilising the information, ideas and insights that exist beyond the traditional boundaries of public institutions, new solutions are emerging.

The city of Flint, Michigan is an example. From its peak in 1960, the city’s population fell by more than 50 per cent by 2018, leaving the city with many vacant homes and empty lots. Nearly 40 per cent of properties in the city are blighted. The city developed a plan for urban blight, but Flint public servants did not have the resources or data to carry out the plan. In order to proceed, the city created the Flint Property Portal, a website that allowed residents to collect and report data about blighted properties. Community groups have completed a citywide census of all 56,000 properties in Flint, so the city knows where the problems are. This data – collectively gathered by the community – has helped the city apply for and receive a $60 million blight elimination grant through the U.S. Treasury Hardest Hit Fund. Perhaps most important, this collaboration between government and citizens has given everyone a transparent picture of conditions in their own city and empowered residents through the process of collaboration in problem-solving.

The potential for collective intelligence to drive new and improved ways of delivering vital public services and to be applied in a range of contexts is becoming clearer by the day. GoodSAM and Pulsepoint use collective action to mobilise trained responders, such as off-duty doctors, nurses and paramedics to come to assist in life-threatening emergencies close by, dramatically expanding the capacity of government first responders. In Taiwan, the national government builds consensus on complex policy issues such as Uber, online alcohol sales and telemedicine through a volunteer-run citizen engagement platform that combines in-person meetings and online opinion generation.

Despite such successes, too often governments do not know how to engage with the public efficiently to solve problems. They may run the occasional crowdsourcing exercise, citizens’ jury or challenge but struggle to integrate collective intelligence in the regular course of business.

Working more openly and collaboratively will require institutions to develop new capabilities, adapt long-standing procedures, shift organisational cultures, foster conditions more conducive to external partnerships, change laws, and ensure collective intelligence inputs are transparently accounted for when making decisions. But knowing how to make these changes and re-design how public institutions make decisions, requires a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of when and how to use collective intelligence.

To help institutions meet this challenge The GovLab and the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design at Nesta are examining cases from around the world in order to identify what is involved in leveraging collective intelligence. We want to understand how global leaders have solved problems, what resources were involved, what level of time commitment and what practices made it possible to solve problems more efficiently and effectively using collective intelligence.

Our aim is to draw out what works and what doesn’t, with a particular focus on the institutional arrangements that need to be in place. We want to learn when and how collective intelligence can help to solve problems in less cumbersome, less costly and more effective ways than traditional approaches.

The research will build on past work undertaken by The GovLab such as the Open Policymaking Playbook, which sets out cost-effective mechanisms for using collective intelligence in policymaking, and CrowdLaw for Congress which showcases practical strategies elected representatives can use to engage citizens in lawmaking.

At Nesta it forms part of a wider programme of work exploring how best to design for collective intelligence, which includes projects such as the Collective Intelligence Playbook and recent work on how artificial intelligence can better enable collective intelligence.

Our research report, to be released in early 2020, will include searchable case analyses and will be accompanied by a design guide for public problem-solvers seeking to incorporate collective intelligence methods in their projects and initiatives.

Ultimately, we aim to demonstrate how every organisation can tackle problems more successfully if it tapped into a ‘bigger mind’.

You can learn more about this research and make suggestions for collective intelligence cases we should explore by emailing [email protected].

This blog was originally posted on the GovLab website.


Peter Baeck

Peter Baeck

Peter Baeck

Director of the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design

Peter leads work that explores how combining human and machine intelligence can develop innovative solutions to social challenges.

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Beth Simone Noveck

Beth Simone Noveck directs The Governance Lab (GovLab) and its MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance.

Matt Ryan

Matt is a Senior Fellow of The GovLab at New York University and previously led work on collective intelligence initiatives as Deputy Chief of Staff to a South Australian Premier.